I’m at a jazz club on the west side of Chicago. I’m sipping my ginger ale at the bar. It’s a work night, so no shenanigans for me beyond the rhythms. I’m fresh-ish off finishing my last doctoral class, which has caused a major case of imposter syndrome. Finishing didn’t feel as good as I thought it would, and I wonder if I’m meant for academia. I don’t know what to do with this sudden excess of free time after twelve years of nonstop higher education. I think back on all the career shifts, places I’ve traveled, women I’ve dated, plans I had to cancel, and all I can think is that I spent the last decade building up to this moment and I’m not fully enjoying it.
I feel like I’m living every quarter life crisis novel I’ve read, short of self-destruction and empty one night stands. In fact, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises during this weird funk, so I know that there’s a certain vibe to it. I hang out at jazz clubs and museums and movie theaters looking for answers.
Last time I was in a life crisis, I got comfort by reading Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a short cocaine-fueled novel about redemption and moving forward after heartache. I’ve never done coke. When I wrote a story that needed a scene where someone does drugs, I had to Google: “how to do heroin.” That one was picked up by the Bangalore Review, and I’ve yet to be fact-checked about it or asked if I’ve ever done heroin myself. I consider it an insult sometimes that people know I’m not as exciting as my writing.
Nevertheless, I nodded my head while I read it in my jam-jams: “That’s how it is, man,” I said.
It’s one of my safety books that I revisit at least once a year to remind myself that, yes, life can get better. The final line flashes in my head as I sip my ginger ale: “You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.”
A guy with a weird hat sits next to me.
“Where you from?” Weird Hat asks.
“Lombard,” I reply.
“Oh, shit! You’re close to Al Capone’s grave.”
I raise an eyebrow, “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah, man. Alphonse Capone! I go there once a month. There’s two graves in Chicago — the first grave kept getting defaced, so they moved the body to the ’burbs. People keep defacing it though.”
“You’re really into Capone, huh?”
“He took what was his, man! You gotta admire that audacity. Al fucking Capone didn’t take shit from nobody. All the lousy wimps could learn a lesson or two from him.” I nod my head as the music starts.
“What are you doing here?” Weird Hat asks.
“Honestly, distracting myself from imposter syndrome,” I sip my ginger ale.
“Remember Al Capone, man. Don’t be a lousy wimp. Don’t be a nice guy. They don’t get anything in the end. You take what’s yours and you don’t look back.”
I stare at him in silence for a few seconds and then force out, “Okay.”
The music starts and he finds his seat.
Yes, Al Capone.
Yes, Weird Hat.
Yes, imposter syndrome.
It all makes sense somehow. This is my life.
As Weird Hat sits down, I run to my car and write down everything he said - a habit I picked up being a nosy writer. I know better than to question God when he throws someone unhinged my way. When it comes to creativity, a good writer doesn’t waste anything.
I meet with an Arabic media company executive to pitch him an idea for a sitcom. We meet at a restaurant. That’s when I get a text message from a buddy about my seminary’s president. He is caught in a major abuse scandal.
I’m in thesis writing season. Last thing I need is a moral quandary of whether or not to stay. It would be like life to pull this on me when I’m so close to the finish line. Maybe Weird Hat is right. I need to take what’s rightfully mine, or make it mine. Yeah. Maybe Capone was a smart fella.
I shake off that thought.
The executive meets me at dinner. We talk movies and Arabic culture.
I can’t get the image of my seminary in flames out of my head.
The sitcom series idea is accepted, but it’ll take some time to start.
I continue my lifestyle of movie theaters and jazz clubs, feeling empty still.
“Did you hear about what’s happening at your seminary?” a friend asks me over brunch the next day.
“Yes,” I reply. “It’s nuts.”
“Are you going to stay?”
A brief wave of panic runs through me. I want to say no , but I know I’ll hate myself forever if I do that.
I paraphrase Office Space: “Yeah, I’ll stay. I mean... why should I go? He’s the one that sucks.”
“That’s the spirit.”
I sit in the Bible study of my church. Well, it’s not really a Bible study. It’s a group of men who gather around to tell jokes and rant about politics. We’re Mennonites, but the cool, modern kind, not the Women Talking kind. We drive cars and we like it when women talk. We dig it so much that we hired one as a pastor.
“I visited Al Capone’s grave,” says one of the men.
“I heard about that,” I sip my black coffee. “What was it like?”
“It’s pretty crazy. People go out there to spraypaint it and vandalize the tombstone. A guy running the cemetery asked us what we were doing. Well, I told him we were there to check it out and he said people like to do all sorts of weird things to it.”
I think back to my very evangelical ex-girlfriend from 2020 who liked to focus on things that didn’t remind her that the world could be cruel and dark. Completely cramped my scene for a bit. She didn’t get the vibe. Good person though. We talked about marriage a lot, and the what if? question comes to mind every now and then. Not in a longing for her way, but more in an alternative universe kinda way. Same kinda way you might imagine universes where everyone has mustaches.
Would she have liked the Mennonites? I don’t think she would have. We’re all over the place. We like to talk about injustice over a good coffee. Get worked up, red in the face. Go out and throw ourselves in a war zone peacefully because of Jesus or the Sermon on the Mount or MLK or whatever. Not a pair of skinny jeans in sight.
Shortly after the Al Capone story, we transition to the Amish, and then Artificial Intelligence.
I tell my twelve-step group about this later on that night. I’m not in a group for addiction. I’m in one of those vague spiritual-emotional sobriety kinds that work with trauma, the kind that AA vets like to mock.
“Look at this guy, defining his own sobriety!” says a critic in my head. “In my day, sobriety was forced on me after I was in the gutter for a week after my wife left me and my dog tried to kill me. You think that story would be reversed with my wife trying to kill me and the dog leaving me, but drinking does its DAMAGE and it MAKES NO SENSE. Up is down, left is right, aliens are real! It’s CHAOTIC and SAD and all the worst things in the world at once. You’re a coward for not losing complete control of your life. GIVE IN TO YOUR DEMONS.” When you have a critic like that, you almost have to become a writer.
“You live close to Al Capone’s grave?” asks someone in the meeting.
“Yeah, I do,” I reply.
“That guy… that guy should’ve gotten sober. He would have benefitted from a program like this.”
We all nod.
Al Capone would’ve been a saint if he’d known about the Promises. If only he’d known he was a unique and precious creation, he would’ve been a little nicer. A good cry sesh, that’s what Capone needed.
I drive out to the grave, take a few pictures.
It’s quiet, uneventful.
I look on Instagram and notice that people liked to do all sorts of crazy poses with the grave. Al wouldn’t have liked that. I decide not to do it.
A few gravestones over is another tourist attraction — the Italian Bride’s grave, her real name being Julia Petta. There’s a picture of her body on the tombstone. It looked like she was freshly dead in the photo, but the story is grimmer. She died in childbirth, along with her stillborn son Fillipo.
Her mother had visions of Julia being buried alive, and five years later had the casket exhumed. When they opened it, they discovered that her body was still mostly intact, with only Filipo’s body fully decomposed.
I think briefly about what it would be like to be buried alive, and I wonder if it’s anything like I imagine.
Then I wonder why a seemingly nice woman like Julia gets harassed and dug up while Al Capone is respected and borderline worshiped. I share with my twelve step meeting these thoughts. They nod, say I’m heard, and then they pretend I didn’t say anything super weird.
My seminary president is officially fired, but everyone’s still mad because the story leaked to the media and the board president praised the “good work” the president did. Students are furious and demand the entire board to resign. Random strangers on Twitter direct message me asking for details. I decide to step back for self care.
The writer’s strike starts close to when I attend the production company’s party where they officially introduce me as a contracted screenwriter.
I’m beyond excited about the screenwriting gig, but then I realize I can’t share it on social media yet due to fears of me looking like a scab. The company’s not on the list for being boycotted, and yet it’s a lousy time to announce anything related to screenwriting.
I sigh and remember the lesson Weird Hat told me about just going for it. I want to blame him for this cruel cosmic joke. It’s the only option I have, really.
I did a lot of traveling this summer. Went to the Borderlands in Arizona and Colombia because I’m a Mennonite, and I did it for Jesus or the Sermon on the Mount or MLK Jr. or whatever.
An old college friend is visiting. Gideon. He is a single dad now, divorced last year. We get along better now that we’ve both been through the gauntlet of loss and heartache. My imposter syndrome season matched well with his divorce. Besties forevsies.
I told him to read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and it also changed his life and helped him heal. Later on in the week, we’re going to watch Paris, Texas and talk about the positive relationship lessons we can take from someone else’s mess.
Just guys doing dude things. Vibing, as Gen Z would say.
“I want to see the grave,” Gideon says as he opens a Red Bull at 10 p.m.
“Wait, are you drinking Red Bull?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.
“I don’t understand. I have one of those past 3 PM and I’m up all night.”
He shrugs, “Ya gotta live life, man.”
Later on in the night, he asks me for a lighter.
“Are you gonna smoke?” I ask.
“Nate, we’re in our thirties,” he holds up a candle. “We don’t smoke. We light lavender candles for our bedtime routines. Grow up. Do better.”
We stand in front of Al Capone’s grave.
There are cigars and empty beer cans next to it.
Gideon takes a few pictures, and then hands me the phone.
“I’m taking his cigar,” he laughs.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m taking Al Capone’s cigar.”
“I don’t think that’s allowed.”
Gideon rolls his eyes as I record him taking it from the grave.
We get back in the car, I start rationalizing.
“He was pretty racist, you know,” I say. “He doesn’t deserve that cigar… and it’s the cheap kind, anyway.”
“Um… he was a murderer.”
“Good point… if something negative happens next on this trip, we know his ghost is messing with you.”
“I’m an atheist, Nate. Ghosts don’t mess with you if you don’t believe in them.”
A few hours later, Gideon stood at the bank with his jaw dropped.
“What do you mean there’s been a fraudulent charge?” he asks.
“Al Capone,” I whisper.
Gideon’s card is canceled due to someone using his account to purchase a thousand dollars worth of Amazon goods.
I think back to Weird Hat: “He took what was his, man! You gotta admire that audacity. Al fucking Capone didn’t take shit from nobody. All the lousy wimps could learn a lesson or two from him.”
I nod. It makes sense that this happened in its own weird way.
Gideon sits next to me.
“I hate to say I told you so," I say. “But I told you so.”
“Worth it,” he chuckles. “Worth. It. Getting the money back anyway. Capone’s a bitch if that’s all he’s got.”
Later that night, I lay in bed wondering about Capone’s grave and his cigar. Gideon posts the video on Instagram and Facebook. It gets attention, mostly positive.
I think back on the past year, and Weird Hat’s words echo again about lousy wimps learning from Capone’s example. I don’t think I agree with Weird Hat’s insight on this. Capone is now being used by frat bros and teenagers and, well… Gideon to get attention. Fella couldn’t even hold on to a cheap cigar.
There’s something to the ethics of Jesus or the Sermon on the Mount or MLK Jr. or whatever.
It’s okay to be a lousy wimp.
It’s good, in fact.
I think back at my life and realize how good I have it. I go from being in an existential funk to suddenly experiencing massive career success in a few months. I’m having a novella published soon. My thesis proposal is accepted. I’m graduating next year with my doctorate. I’m stoked. None of this was well thought-out or planned, but I tell myself it is. Occasionally gaslighting myself is a treat.
Someday, the writer’s strike will end. The seminary president will be fired. I will be able to post an announcement on social media without being accused of crossing the picket line. And the real trick of it all is to receive it with grace and patience until those things happen.
This next year looks overwhelming. It looks different than how I envisioned it a few years ago, but somehow I know it will be okay. I say a short serenity prayer as Gideon calls from downstairs. He wants pizza.
I get out of bed again and remember Jay McInerney: “You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.”
Unlike the main character in that brilliant novel, I didn’t need a cocaine addiction to find that out. It’s a good start, I figure.